Why data matters

The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) was recently ranked as the second most influential environmental think tank in the Global Go-To Think Tank Index, up from number six the year before. This was clearly a nice surprise. But as scientists and academics, we’re programmed to treat league tables with a degree of caution, so it’s hard to resist wondering just what it means.

We know the index is the result of an international survey of over 1950 experts from the fields of academia, policy-making and journalism. But how were the results put together? By whom? Why did we gain so many places in a year within such a competitive space – did we actually get better or did the criteria change? To put it another way: does it matter?

This question is at the heart of the Measure What Matters project. There is a huge array of data and tools out there that are, or could be, used to define sustainable development and measure progress towards it. They take the form of freely available and close-sourced data; methods and indicators; anecdotal and case-study evidence. They can be found in businesses, at national level, and at the international level, where the post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are currently taking shape.

A key aim of Measure What Matters is to identify which of the many data sources and tools can tell us something genuinely useful about the core areas of sustainable development; how best to use them; and how to enhance consistency between the sources and tools that are used by different types of stakeholder, making it easier to learn from each other and pull in the same direction. Hopefully, the project will help to piece together information that really does matter to those with a role to play in creating a more sustainable future.

As the primary research partner in Measure What Matters, SEI has a wealth of knowledge – and front-line experience – of the challenges of dealing with “big data” and complex real-world problems. As one illustration, SEI’s Sustainable Consumption and Production group, which I work within, was recently asked by the British government to develop a method for measuring the environmental impact of UK imports. To meet this challenge we have had to choose between a range of alternative data sets from sources of differing quality, and make a variety of assumptions about them. Having done that, we are still trying to understand what the data are telling us, and how our choices impact on the findings. Only then can we try to translate our findings into policy advice.

Another lesson we’ve learned is that knowing how to measure a negative impact is not the same as knowing how to mitigate it. A long-running programme of work within SEI looks at the implementation and uptake of cleaner cookstoves in sub-Saharan Africa. We have long been able to measure the major role traditional cookstoves play in health and environmental problems. Yet even today, attempts to introduce cleaner stoves have had limited success, with social and cultural resistance proving a particularly intractable challenge.

Communicating issues like this, drawn from a much broader range of topic areas, to policy-makers and business leaders will be essential for the success of Measure What Matters. This is an area where SEI’s expertise and experience can be brought to bear. A major factor in SEI’s success in the field of environment and development has its been its ability to bridge between science and the policy and business worlds. This may be the most important contribution SEI can make to Measure What Matters.

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